This book examine the perennial question of Islam and democracy from an interesting angle. It focuses on seven (exclusively non-Arab) case studies of relatively successful democracies in Muslim-majority countries. The objective is to uncover ‘relationships between political manifestations of Islam and competitive, democratic politics and [to explain] how interpretations more amenable to democracy can take root’. The author also seeks ‘to determine how actors in Muslim majority states draw upon democratic concepts within Islam’ (p. 3). He then seeks to draw lessons from these successes for the fate of the struggling post-Arab Spring polities, mainly Egypt and Tunisia. This is a novel approach, seeking creatively to employ empirical data to answer important theoretical questions about impediments to/facilitators of democratization. Using indicators from Polity and Freedom House, the author identifies nine Muslim majority countries (Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Senegal, Mali, Albania and Gambia) that have been ‘democratic’ for more than ten consecutive years. The last two, however, do not get chapter-length treatment, and the focus is on the first seven. The aim is to discover how and why these ‘Muslim’ democracies were successful, and what role ‘Islam’ played in this success. More precisely, it seeks to find out how certain interpretations of Islam have been mobilized in support of democracy and democratization, and with what effectiveness. While prioritizing practice and contingency in applying Islamic norms to politics, Kubicek puts forth a number of hypotheses about how ‘Islam’ might aid or hinder democratization. The first is how ‘pure’ and monolithic Islam is in the country in question, in contrast to being syncretic and accommodative of pre-existing norms and beliefs. The hypothesis is that where ‘orthodox’ Islam and Arabic language predominate (mainly, he argues, due to military conquest and the violent de-legitimization of earlier beliefs), democracy has less of a chance than in regions where more pluralist or syncretic versions prevailed. Second, where religious authority is centralized, democracy has less chance than where it is decentralized. Third, the more deeply entrenched secularism is in a country, the better its chances of successful democratization. Fourth, successful democratization becomes more likely ‘if democratization preceded significant Islamic-oriented popular mobilization’. In other words, if democracy is established from above, by pacts among elites, and Islamic groups were incorporated into it at a later stage, this lessens the chances of these groups—or elites threatened by them—undermining or obstructing democracy. This leads to the final point, which is the hypothesis that the political incorporation of Islamist groups is more conducive to their moderation, and thus to enlisting them into the task of stabilizing democracy. Surprise, surprise, the detailed examination of the case studies confirms these hypotheses. As it turned out, most successful Muslim democracies were on the ‘fringe’ of the Islamic world (Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa), where Islam seeped in peacefully, and remained syncretic and pluralistic, infused with Sufism. It thus contrasts sharply with the ‘Wahhabi’ Islam of the Saudis, or the fervent messianism of Iranian Islam. Secularism had deep roots, especially in Turkey and Indonesia, and religious authority was decentralized and non-hierarchical. In the more successful democracies, like Turkey (as opposed to Pakistan and Bangladesh) Islamist mobilization came after democratization. In Indonesia, although mobilization had a longer history, it was successfully contained by a powerful secular autocracy. Varying degrees of incorporation of Islamist groups had existed in most of the successful democracies, and contributed to success. In applying this framework to Egypt and Tunisia (again, surprise, surprise) it turned out that Tunisia, the de facto more successful democracy, also has the more conducive ingredients: it has been staunchly secular, while its Islamist movement has been moderated through incorporation, and even appeared to embrace a quasi-secular, nationalist attitude. Tunisia had a more open, pro-liberal religious tradition, while Islamic mobilization occurred in tandem with democratization. Religious authority also tended to be decentralized. Egypt, by contrast, scores negatively on all indicators, and therefore no wonder democratization there faltered. Like all similar schemas and formulas, this one appears too neat for reality, and too perfect to be credible. First, there is a problem with the over-arching hypothesis, which can be summed up thus: ‘Islam’ is the problem; the less of it, the better. Things fare better if it can be sidelined (through secularism), diluted (through syncretism), fragmented (through decentralization), kept at bay during the democratization process (through absence or suppression of active Islamic actors), and, when such actors appear, if they could be ‘moderated’ through incorporation. In other words, Islam needs to be tamed (evidently through non-democratic, or at least pre-democratic, means) for democracy to take hold. Kubicek protests vociferously throughout the book that this is not his line. However, the quote he cites from Yahya Sadiwski (p. 12) appear to sum up his position neatly: Islam is assumed to be ‘a kind of family curse that lives on, crippling the lives of innocent generations after the original sin created it.’ And of course this is a problematic position, even as an unstated (disavowed) working assumption. Not less problematic is the way reality is given the Procrustean treatment to fit the schema. For example, Turkey is portrayed as a country where Islam was syncretic, where religious authority was decentralized and where Islamist mobilization took place after democratization. All of these are inaccuracies. As the hub of Islam’s last empire, Turkey had always had centralized religious authority, and posed as the guardian of orthodoxy. Kemalism, while disavowing religious orthodoxy, in fact increased the centralization. While Turkey had Sufi traditions like most other Muslim countries, the real religious authority was centred on the adepts of the Ḥanafī school of thought. ‘Islamists’ in Turkey had started mobilizing from the 1960s, and they have always been ‘moderate’ in the sense of espousing secularism openly and unequivocally. It was they who prioritized democracy, and worked hard to establish it, mainly because they were its main beneficiaries. In contrast, secularist forces and the ‘syncretic’ Alawi Kurds remain anti-democratic, with the latter espousing rigid Marxism and openly aligning with despots like Syria’s Assad. Similarly, in Tunisia, religious authority, where it existed, was centralized around the Zaytouna mosque and Malikī ulema, while the Islamists there emerged long before democracy was a realistic prospect (in the early 1980s), and have always been moderate and pro-democracy. Ghannoushi was cited as far back as the mid-1980s as saying that he would not object if a Communist was elected to rule in Tunisia, as long as he/she rules democratically. In all the so-called peripheral countries mentioned, religious authority has by necessity to be centralized. Precisely because the majority did not speak Arabic and had no access to the texts, religious authority had to reside in the Arabic-speaking elite and established ulema, whether these were Sufi leaders or traditional clerics. The fact that such religious authority may be feeble or ineffective is another matter. One gets the impression that the book’s inflation of the ‘Islamic’ factor has obscured the real reasons why democracy continues to falter. For example, Kubicek admits that Islamist parties remain on the fringe of politics in almost all the countries covered. In Bangladesh, the biggest Islamist party hardly obtained 5% of the vote. In Pakistan, Islamists fare only marginally better. However, while the book starts with some provocative statements by the Turkish President, there is hardly a mention of the fact that the secular elite in Bangladesh have resorted to executing political opponents on contentious, four-decades old, war crime charges. (The last person to be executed in September 2016 must have been 18 when the alleged crimes took place!) At least Erdogan has not (yet?) started executing his opponents. When discussing Malaysia, there is little emphasis on the fact that the most important ‘Islamist’ leader there, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, is in jail for nothing to do with him being Islamist, but for championing a more genuine democracy. All this and many other omissions and exaggerations indicate that the real issues are not really being addressed here. Any discussions of the success or failure of democratization is pointless unless it deals with the mechanisms which sustain despotism, or give some actors the power to undermine and topple democracies. The Islamists in all the countries covered do not have the ability to overturn democracies. Even when they managed to come to power, as in Egypt, they had little control over the state or the media. They looked more like the opposition than the government. I once commented that former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi looked like the head of an NGO headquartered in the Presidential Palace. Even in Turkey, it took the AKP a decade to have a semblance of real power, and even today it is struggling to control all the levers of power, and was almost deposed in a coup last year. If the arguments in this book have any validity, it could be to draw attention to the fact it is this fixation with attempting to contain Islam which is the factor that needs to be looked at when assessing the impediments to democratization in Muslim-majority countries. The insecurity of the entrenched elite vis-à-vis the ‘Islamic menace’ has become the main drive for resisting democracy, or seeking to undermine it. It has also infected scholarship and international policy-making circles. This can be seen in the way both scholarship and key Western capitals seem to tolerate, even celebrate, the Egyptian despot Abdelfattah Sisi, who quashed democracy and committed countless atrocities, while demonizing Erdogan who is struggling to maintain an imperfect democracy, just because the latter is deemed to be ‘Islamist’, while the former is an enemy of Islam. (Imagined) insecurity, as I have explained in detail elsewhere, is indeed corrosive of all democratic structures. Just look at how America and Europe today are coming to resemble Third World polities, threatened by demagogues and assorted anti-democratic forces. It is not religion that is the problem here, but plain fear and hate. In both Britain and the US, the threat haunting the polity remains (unwanted) neighbours (East European or Latino migrants). Fear and democracy do not mix. This book epitomizes the obsession with the menace of Islam, but does not address it analytically. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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